From Ancient Rome to Haifa, via Sodom

The Haifa Film Festival takes pride in its tradition of showcasing older movies and honoring the works that laid the foundations for contemporary filmmaking. The 23rd International Haifa Film Festival, which opens next Thursday under the creative direction of Penina Blair and will last eight days, features what is considered a major landmark in the history of cinema. "Cabiria," the 1914 Italian film directed by Giovanni Pastrone, brought trailblazing innovations in photography, lighting, stage sets and more to audiences around the world.

This 181-minute cinematic opus, tells the story of a young woman named Cabiria, who is separated from her family during the war between Rome and Carthage, and unwittingly embarks on a journey through ancient Rome. Martin Scorsese initiated the reparation of the physical film by the National Film Museum in Torino, and he is scheduled to introduce it and explain its importance at the Haifa screening. Italian pianist Stefano Maccagno is traveling with the reproduction of this silent film as it tours the various festivals, and will provide the musical accompaniment in Haifa.

"Pasolini prossimo nostro," directed by Giuseppe Bertolucci (the younger brother of Bernardo Bertolucci), provides another glimpse of classical Italy. This film presents excerpts from a 1975 interview with well-known Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini on the set of his last film, "Salo or The 120 days of Sodom," a few months before he was murdered. In the interview Pasolini speaks about his cinematic vision, the process of filmmaking, the graphic violence in his final film, which was based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and the political criticism the film embodies.

Bertolucci combined footage from the interview, which has not been screened before, with stills from Pasolini's movie set. "Salo or The 120 days of Sodom" is also scheduled to be screened. It is set during the final days of fascist Italy, and for many years was banned in Italy and in several other countries.

French actress Sophie Marceau will bring this year's festival an aura of glamour. Marcau won acclaim at age 14, when she starred in the successful teen flick, "La Boum." Since then she has appeared in dozens of movies, and is now coming to Haifa to present "La disparue de Deauville," the second feature-length film she has directed. She also stars in this film, alongside Christopher Lambert, who is due to accompany her to Israel.

Another director expected at the festival is Michael Winterbottom ("24 Hour Party People"), here to present his new film, "A Mighty Heart," starring Angelina Jolie. This film aroused considerable interest at the last Cannes Film Festival, where it was screened but did not compete. It tells the story of Mariane Pearl, the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was executed in Pakistan in 2002. The film, produced by Jolie's partner, Brad Pitt, will close the festival.

Danish director Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror"), who will head the panel of judges for the Israeli Film Competition, is set to present his new film, "Goodbye Bafana." The movie is about the white man who worked as a guard in the prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. The film portrays the friendship that developed between the guard and the freedom fighter who changed the fate of millions of blacks in South Africa.

This year the festival will honor Jiri Menzel, the Czech director whose first film, "Closely Watched Trains," earned him an Oscar in 1967. Menzel is set to receive an award for cinematic excellence, and his films, "Closely Watched Trains," "Larks on a String," "My Sweet Little Village," and his new film, "I Served the King of England," will all be screened. Menzel's latest film won the Fipresci Prize at the 2007 Berlin Festival. This is the sixth film Menzel has directed, and it is based on a book by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal.

The Feature-Length Israeli Film Competition, the festival's main event, has six entries this year (see box). Another 13 films are competing in the documentary competition. Additional local dramas, short films and cartoons, among others, will be screened outside the competition.

"The Disengagement," directed by Amos Gitai and starring Juliette Binoche and Liran Levo, premiered this month at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. It is set to open the Haifa festival.

Another Israeli film set to debut next week is "Places," the new English-language film by Isaac Zepel Yeshurun. Four years after his "She's not 17" won the Best Film Award at the Haifa festival, Yeshurun is back with a new film, produced by an American company and filmed in the United States. Yeshurun will also head the jury for the Golden Anchor competition for Mediterranean film and will present his own movie, about an obsessive New York psychologist who meets a woman with supernatural powers.

Of all the films from abroad, several seem quite intriguing. Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose debut film "The Return" won several prizes four years ago (at the Venice festival alone it won five awards, including the Golden Lion), this year directed his second film, "The Banishment." This movie, which premiered at the last Cannes festival and won Best Actor (Konstantin Lavronenko), tells the story of a Russian family that goes on vacation. Like Zvyagintsev's first film, this one, too, is full of breathtaking landscapes and the impressive photography of Mikhail Krichman. Note: This film is 157 minutes long.

"Retour en Normandi," by French director Nicolas Philibert ("Verbs for Beginners"), documents meetings between the director and Normandy locals he first interviewed some 30 years ago, while researching a film he assistant-directed. That first film, directed by Rene Allio, "I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother ..." about a 19th century Normandy murder case, will also be screened at the festival.

"Opium: Diary of a Madwoman," by Hungarian director Yanos Szasz, portrays a psychoanalyst in the early 20th century who is addicted to morphine and suffers from writer's block. The plot focuses on his complex relationship with a new female patient.

"Hope," by Polish director Stanislaw Mucha, is based on a screenplay by Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the screenwriter who worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski, and is part of the second trilogy the two planned together. "Euphoria," the debut film by Russian director Ivan Vyrypaev, depicts a love story. It won the small Golden Lion at the Venice festival last year.

Animated film lovers will want to see "Free Jimmy," a feature length Norwegian film that was screened during the Critics Week at last year's Cannes festival. This film, with its beautiful 3D animation and direction by Christopher Nielsen, is clearly intended for adults. Even though it has a few animals, it also contains drugs, a risque sex scene and criticism of both circuses and animal rights activists.

In her debut film, "Elle s'appelle Sabine / Her Name is Sabin," actress-turned-director Sandrine Bonnaire traces 25 years of her sister's life, which is complicated by autism-related behavioral problems. Bonnaire documented the establishment's difficulties in finding her sister a suitable educational framework, and her deterioration from inappropriate treatment. This film won the Fipresci Award at this year's Cannes festival.

Other documentaries set to be screened feature directors David Lynch and Steven Spielberg, musician Herbie Hancock, photographer Annie Leibovitz and Israeli choreographer Ohan Naharin. There will also be a film about the controversial Orange Gates project by Jeanne-Claude and Christo and the protracted struggle to stage it in Central Park, Manhattan.